School Ditches Factory “Assembly Line”

From the New Haven Independent:

Sixty-five freshmen are about to embark on a new journey to reimagine a high school education—one that may take three, five, or even six years, depending on how quickly they learn.

Just don’t call them “freshmen.”

And say good-bye to social promotion.

“We’re pushing all the assumptions of how school is supposed to work,” said Erik Good, who’s steering the experimental journey.

The journey begins a week from Wednesday as the academic year begins at High School in the Community (HSC). The radical restructuring is taking place as the Water Street magnet school becomes a “turnaround”—a school with special permission to reconstitute its staff, extend the school day, and overhaul the school rules in order to lift lagging student performance.

A teacher-run school since its inception in 1970, HSC launched two months ago as a turnaround directly managed by the teachers union instead of the school district central office staff. It’s among the most prominent examples to date of how, unlike in other cities, the teachers union and school board here are working together rather than fight on school reform experiments.

HSC, which has 250 students from New Haven and surrounding suburbs, is the city’s sixth turnaround school. Earlier this month it joined the first batch of schools to become part of the state’s new “Commissioner’s Network” of state-sanctioned turnarounds. The state Board of Education approved an extra $7.5 million for HSC and three other turnarounds in other cities. HSC will receive about $1 to $1.5 million to pay for its plans, according to state Department of Education spokesman Jim Polites.

The school got a head start on its transformation last spring, when staff had to re-interview for their jobs, prompting a third of the 31 teachers to leave. The leadership team, which was elected by teachers at the school, will remain in place.

Good, who has worked at HSC for 12 years and was elected to serve as an administrator for the past two, is overseeing the overhaul as the “building leader.” (The school has no technical “principal.”)

Good and his colleagues have spent the summer diving into a daunting task: To reinvent how the school evaluates and promotes students.

To start, HSC is scrapping the term “freshmen.”

Instead of entering “freshman year,” incoming students will be placed at the “foundation level” of a new “competency-based learning” system. That means students have to demonstrate mastery of certain skills in order to move up.

That’s a big change from the current system, where students simply have to get passing grades to progress.

School will no longer be a “Henry Ford assembly line” where all kids get shuffled through at the same speed, Good said. Instead of getting promoted based on seat time, students will progress at their own pace, once they’re ready.

“We’re pushing all the assumptions of how school is supposed to work,” Good said.

HSC is piloting the new system with its first-year students; next year, it plans to convert the entire school to competency-based promotion, he said.

No More Scraping By

In doing so, HSC is following national momentum around redefining the meaning of a high school diploma, according to Larry Schaefer, a senior staff associate with Connecticut Association Public School Superintendents (CAPSS). Schools in Colorado, Oregon and Alaska have already made the shift to competency-based learning, as well as the entire states of New Hampshire and Maine. Vermont is in the process, he said.

CAPSS has endorsed competency-based learning and has been training Connecticut schools in how to implement the method. Schaefer led a training last week for HSC and eight other state schools—called the Connecticut League of Innovative Schools—that are considering following suit.


HSC will be the first public school in the state to make the jump to competency-based learning, according to Schaefer.

“It’s a major change,” he said.

Schaefer said when you watch an average high school graduation, “there are some kids that cross the stage that got all D minuses. They got by minimally.”

Passing grades may not indicate kids are ready for college or careers, Schaefer said. “Many times, students get grades for effort, or because they’re nice kids and they cooperate with the teacher.” Teachers gave all kids the opportunity to learn for four years—but “whether or not they learned it was up to them.”

“In a competency-based approach, you have to master certain content skills in order to earn your diploma,” he explained. The goal is to “make sure that all students graduate college-and-career-ready.”

The approach “really raises the bar,” Schaefer said. “It gives better assurance, in my mind, that when you get a diploma, you’ve got something that’s important and shows what you’ve learned.”

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